Science is not the Olympics

by Russ Roberts on May 3, 2004

in Science

The New York Times reports (rr) that America is losing its edge in science:

Foreign advances in basic science now often rival or even exceed America’s, apparently with little public awareness of the trend or its implications for jobs, industry, national security or the vigor of the nation’s intellectual and cultural life.

“The rest of the world is catching up,” said John E. Jankowski, a senior analyst at the National Science Foundation, the federal agency that tracks science trends. “Science excellence is no longer the domain of just the U.S.”

Is this good news or bad news? As long as total knowledge is growing, this is good news. The race for scientific discovery isn’t a zero sum game where finishing second makes you a loser. Most scientific knowledge is essentially a public good. The Times does see some positive benefit:

Even analysts worried by the trend concede that an expansion of the world’s brain trust, with new approaches, could invigorate the fight against disease, develop new sources of energy and wrestle with knotty environmental problems.

Some concession, no?

But profits from the breakthroughs are likely to stay overseas, and this country will face competition for things like hiring scientific talent and getting space to showcase its work in top journals.

I’m not sure that point about profits is even true. But even if it is, general uncaptured benefits from scientific advancement must dwarf the profit impact manifold. And competition is going to open more avenues in the inevitable trial-and-error process of scientific progress.

The real question is not whether America is “ahead” or “behind” but whether students interested in science have good opportunities to explore science. Surely we could reform education in ways that improve science education.

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